A dustbowl, Newmarket certainly is not, but at the December horse sales in the town this week there was an almost Oklahoman sense of farmers - horse farmers, anyway - upping and leaving for more fertile territory. The equine population continues to fall. Tattersalls, Europe's leading auctioneers, are moving their premier sale to Ireland. At least a third of the training yards in the town are on the market.
'When people think of racing', Andrew Howland, of Tattersalls, said yesterday, 'they see the Queen, Sheikh Mohammed and Lord Howard de Walden. What they fail to see is the stable lad, the blacksmith and the punter in the betting shop.' Racing, in its demand for help, never tires of repeating the fact that the sport, taken with betting, is among the country's top 10 industries, and nowhere is the web of inter-related occupations more clearly drawn than in Newmarket.
According to the Jockey Club there are 65 trainers and 1,750 horses in and around the town. There are 4,000 acres of training grounds and vast swathes of Suffolk land taken up by the innumerable stud farms. To lend detail to that map, you have to add the horse transportation companies, saddlers, farriers, bloodstock agencies, the hotels that service racegoers and horse dealers, estate agents, and so on and so forth until you have built an image of a community umbilically linked to what, almost unquestionably, is a declining industry.
Newmarket may never have endured such a wretched year. The Hamilton Road, that overspill and overspend of the late 1980s, is a wind-swept strip of estate agents' boards and empty stable boxes. Sheikh Mohammed, by far Newmarket's biggest patron, has announced that he will have 25 per cent fewer horses in training next year, and the Jockey Club is budgeting for another sharp drop in the number of animals using its preparatory facilities next year (the decline, in 1992, was eight per cent).
A full-scale strike by owners and trainers next Flat season is no remote possibility. Among a delegation of disaffected trainers visiting the Jockey Club in London recently were Sheikh Mohammed's No 1 horse-coach, John Gosden, and Michael Stoute, a former champion on the Flat, so nobody in Newmarket accepts that it is only the weak and inefficient who are building barricades. The favourite arguments are that the government (in VAT and betting duty) and the bookmakers (in profits) take too much out of the sport.
The most precise summary of what has happened to Newmarket comes from Geoffrey Abbot, an estate agent with James Lang Wootton in the town. Abbot says: 'In Newmarket there is a solid core of racing families who have been in the sport perhaps hundreds of years. When you get a boom, the new-rich come in and the demand for horses and training facilities goes up. On the back of the Thatcher years we had a massive increase in the number of horses and training yards - particularly along the Hamilton Road - but when we hit recession that new money started withdrawing with the result that a lot of people have become financiallly imperilled.'
Tales of indebtedness in Newmarket are legion, and as one Jockey Club insider said: 'Many of the trainers here are hanging on by the tips of their fingernails.' The value of stables has fallen by up to 50 per cent, and many trainers who would like to sell immediately to staunch their losses have borrowed too much to be able to lower the asking price.
Simon Sweeting, a colleague of Abbot's, said: 'The only racing stable we have sold this year is Adrian Lee's (Lee had just 12 horses at a yard equipped for many more) and that's because he was prepared to put it on at a sensible price. Very few yards are being advertised at an achievable price.'
The most optimistic interpretation circulating at the Tattersalls December sales was that falling property and horse prices will draw in new investors and kill off the unrealistic expectations that Newmarket is so good at propagating (over-production is one of the worst legacies of the 80s). One thing that everybody agreed on was that British buyers were virtually absent this week, and in the bars and restaurants of Tattersalls you could have been mistaken for thinking you were in some Olympic village of horse traders.
Japan, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Thailand, the United States: all these countries, and more, bought animals from the firm of auctioneers who have been selling racehorses since 1766. 'What you have,' a member of the Tattersalls staff, said, 'is the rest of the world coming over and picking the bones of the British bloodstock industry.'
Ask Howland if Tattersalls will withdraw from Newmarket altogether in protest at the government's VAT regime and he says: 'We must listen to our clients. We will do what they ask us to.' The Jockey Club says that unless Whitehall bends on the issue, as many as 30,000 jobs could be jeopardised in racing and breeding nationally, and that figure has been taken up by the MP Sebastian Coe, of all people, in a parliamentary debate that even John Major has been drawn into.
Unemployment in the Newmarket area is currently 2,340, or 6.9 per cent of the working population, and while there are no figures to show what proportion of that is racing-related, the number of stable staff out of work is likely to rise sharply over Christmas as trainers lay off workers with promises of new contracts in February.
'Save Newmarket' may seem like a hysterical and arrogant appeal to the non-racing world, especially when it considers that 20 years ago there were just 33 trainers and 800 horses in the town, compared with today's 65 and 1,750 respectively.
The message the town is pushing, though, is that not all the losers started out rich.
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